Sun 20 Dec 2009
I’m defining “Old School” as wineries founded in 1980 or earlier. I’ll be working intensely on this series through the end of the year, which is — whiz! bang! –almost here. I’ve been fretting about this subject for months, thinking that I needed to write a blockbuster post for 25 or 30 wines, but that would have been insane, so I’m breaking the roster into parts. I think that will help me accomplish the job a little easier.
____________________________________________________________________________________ When E.and J. Gallo purchased the Louis M. Martini Winery in 2002, the company acquired not only a Napa Valley winery and production facilities, the Martini label and 720 acres of vineyards, it bought almost 70 years of history and goodwill and a solid reputation. Louis M. Martini began making sacramental wine in 1922, but he was ready for the end of Prohibition, producing his first cabernet sauvignon wine in 1934. Martini had studied winemaking in Italy, and he adhered to old-fashioned ideas of blending grapes from different vineyards and using large wooden tanks for fermentation and aging. Collectors with long memories recall the great Martini cabernets of the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, and one reads about those wines with envy. The 1970s and ’80s, however, saw a decline in the winery’s ability to keep up with the times and with the many producers that emerged during those decades. Out went the redwood vats in 1989; in came the French barriques.
The reputation of Louis M. Martini has been slow to rebuild. Louis M. Martini’s grandson Michael remains as winemaker, and he seems dedicated to making cabernet-based wines of which his grandfather would be proud, wines that are neither over-ripe or flamboyant, that depend on acidity for structure, that keep alcohol to an acceptable level — for today, that is, meaning between 13.5 and 14.2 percent, generally — and that play down toasty new oak in favor of tannin. Old-fashioned, to be sure, forthright rather than elegant, not thrilling but virtuous.
Here are reviews of Louis M. Martini cabernet wines, sent as sample bottles, from the past several vintages.
The Louis M. Martini Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, Sonoma County — this is the winery’s basic cabernet — offers remarkable detail and dimension for the price. The color is medium ruby; the pungent bouquet weaves black currants and black cherries with cedar and tobacco, mulberry, bitter chocolate and crushed gravel and a hint of rhubarb pie. Flavors of macerated and slightly stewed black and red fruit are permeated by grainy, dusty tannins, lead pencil and granite, dried porcini and spicy oak, all wrapped in a dense chewy texture and enlivened by vibrant acidity. You could drink this tonight with a steak or let it age for a year or two. Loads of personality. Excellent. About $17, a Great Bargain.
The Louis M. Martini Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Sonoma County, blends 90 percent cabernet sauvignon with 4 percent each malbec and cabernet franc, and 1 percent each merlot and tannat, and what the hell is tannat, a rustic bruiser of a grape from southwest France, doing here and what is its one-percent task? Anyway, the wine is rich, warm and spicy, its bouquet a penetrating amalgam of macerated black fruit, black olive, coffee and cocoa powder and crushed granite. Vigorous tannins that incorporate dusty, gnarly, briery elements, bolster succulent black currant and black cherry flavors, with a few minutes in the glass bring hints of red licorice and rose petals to the nose. A cabernet that’s half serious and half charming. Drink through 2014 to ’16. Very Good+. About $17, Great Value.
A blend of 89 percent cabernet sauvignon, 9 percent merlot, 2 percent syrah and 1 percent petit verdot, the Louis M. Martini Napa Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Napa Valley, begins with a clean, fresh granite-and-lead-pencil bouquet that teems with cedar and tobacco, smoke, cassis, black cherry and black raspberry. As enticing as these elements are, in the mouth the wine focuses on intensity and concentration, delivering the true grit of dusty, grainy tannins and polished oak from 12 months in new and used French, American and “European” — which must mean Hungarian or Slovenian — barrels. The finish devolves into wheatmeal, walnut shell and granite-like austerity. In other words, this is a cabernet whose raison d’etre presently lies in the expression of structure; allow it to rest until 2011 or ’12 to unfold. Very Good+ with Excellent potential. About $27.
A bit more accessible, the Louis M. Martini Alexander Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Alexander Valley, drops the proportion of cabernet to 85 percent, increases the petit verdot to 13 percent and slips in 1 percent merlot. You could just stop at the aromas of anise, leather and lavender, mint and cassis and spcied and roasted plums spread on toast. Do continue, though, because in the mouth this wine is large-framed, generous, vibrant and resonant, with bright, ripe, juicy black currant and black cherry flavors abundantly supported by the tannic character of slightly astringent walnut shell and dusty, earthy dried porcini. This is, in a word, classic. Drink now through 2015 to ’17. Excellent. About $35.
How carefully calibrated can a wine be? Check this: The Louis Martini Cabernet Sauvignon 2005, Napa Valley, is a blend of 94 percent cabernet sauvignon, 4 percent petite sirah (unusual itself) and — get this — 0.9 percent cabernet france, 0.6 percent petit verdot (which the press materials that accompanied these wines insist on misspelling petite verdot) and 0.5 percent merlot. Is anyone going to say, “Yesiree, that half percent merlot made all the difference”? O.K., I don’t make the wine, I just second-guess the winemakers. Anyway, this is an incredibly attractive cabernet, deep, rooty, briery and minerally (think shale and crushed gravel), with touches of mint, eucalyptus and black olive threaded through meaty, fleshy black and blue fruit. Yeah, you could eat it with a spoon. Sweet spices add an exotic note to ripe black currant, black cherry and plum flavors nestled in a dense, chewy texture brightened by brisk acidity and supported by well-integrated oak and tannins. A classic to enjoy through 2014 to ’16. Excellent. About $25.
Louis M. Martini bought the Goldstein Ranch, on the west side of the Mayacamas Mountains, in 1938, renaming it Monte Rosso, for its red volcanic soil. In the old days, grapes from Monte Rosso typically went into the winery’s “Special Selection,” cabernet, its previous flagship wine; Monte Rosso has been produced separately since the early 1980s. The Louis M. Martini Monte Rosso Vineyard Cabnernet Sauvignon 2005, Sonoma Valley, with 7 percent petit verdot, is profoundly earthy and tannic, a dusty, rooty, minerally wine that readily displays its (relatively) high-altitude origins. Wisps of mint and eucalyptus, cedar and tobacco and hints of dried currants seduce the nose, but this is clearly a wine in the grip of density, intensity and concentration, though after I tasted these wines in the afternoon, LL had a few glasses each with meatloaf and mashed potatoes, and it drank consistently and beautifully. The alcohol level is higher than usually seen in wines from Martini; the label says 14.8 percent, while the printed material says 15.25. Best from 2011 through 2018 or ’20. Excellent. About $85.